The Agility Formula: Knowing When – and How – To Change Course

Mar 21, 2017
14 Min Read
The Agility Formula: Knowing When and How to Change Course


The Agility Formula: Knowing When and How to Change Course


Business Agility is more complicated than simply being willing to shift gears all the time.

Everyone has heard the fable about the tortoise and the hare. Conventional wisdom says that slow and steady wins the race. A strategy may not be perfect, but if one executes it patiently and consistently, it may outperform better initiatives that don’t get the benefit of time.

However, in today’s rapidly changing business world, an agile business is a successful business. So how do you reconcile these two truths? How do you know when the best thing for the project  is to change the plan, and how can you execute and communicate changes without destroying team motivation and momentum?

Business Agility Insight #1: Create and Challenge Assumptions

Any major strategic initiative should involve the upfront establishment of goals, milestones, and success metrics. But, as Tim Berry pointed out in his article for the Small Business Administration website, assumptions should also be considered in your initial planning. “Tracking your results, you want to be able to compare them to what you had planned or expected to see,” he said.

“Get your team members together once a month to review your plan and its results. “Take a hard look at your underlying assumptions and assess whether or not they’ve changed. If they have, there’s no virtue whatsoever in sticking to the plan you built on top of them.”

Berry suggested you look at the difference between what you planned and what actually happened. Some results will be better than planned, and some will be worse. “For each key difference you discover, and all of them combined, use your best judgment to determine whether the differences were caused by false expectations or unexpected good or bad execution.”

“Also, consider external and internal factors that may have influenced the results. Maybe your expectations were too conservative, or too optimistic. In that case, you revise your plan,” he said.

Common sense, remarked Berry, is critical.  Although the project may be close to your heart, you want to remain pragmatic: for example, asking yourself if you were you wrong about the whole thing, or just about the timing? You also want to consider if something else has occurred in the market to change your assumptions.

In any case, said Berry, maybe you discover that you and your team have executed better than expected, or results were better than expected. “Hooray. Stick to the plan. It’s working,” he advised. “And maybe you discover that your execution was wrong, poor, or flawed. If that’s the case, change the plan.”

Business Agility Insight #2: Let Go of Attachment

 There are times in every project’s lifecycle when things just don’t feel right. You’ve done everything you can to ensure good results, but nothing is happening. Every task feels insurmountable and you start to lose faith.

According to Lisa Marie Jenkins at the Huffington Post, in this situation, one effective approach is to let go of your desire to make it happen. “When we become attached to having something in order to be okay or at peace, then we actually create an energetic block that keeps it at bay. Attachment is a block to creating what you desire. It’s the universal law of attraction,” she said.

Letting go of attachment means that you stop obsessing over your results and simply watch to see what unfolds. When you back off and allow some space, said Jenkins, one of two things will happen. “Either the opportunity will magically start flowing again, or something else will transpire to show you a new direction.” You may even realize, at some point, that getting the exact outcome you thought you wanted wouldn’t have been for the best.

So if a project isn’t proceeding the way you hoped, try loosening your reins. You can still do your job in managing it, but you can stop reacting emotionally and trust that the universe will eventually provide the right answers.

Business Agility Insight #3: Beware of False Realities and Denial

As Mike Cassidy at BloomReach pointed out, the Silicon Valley pivot is a common phenomenon. “Netscape started as a gaming company, Apple was strictly a computer marker, Twitter was going to be a podcast platform. None of them ended up where they started,” he wrote.

Considering the speed of both opportunities and threats in the market, fast turns are often required. “Holding on too long to a project that may not be commercially viable can be the death knell of a company. You need the passion to champion your project but also the wisdom to know when to change course or direction,” said Lynn Johnson Langer, president emeritus of Women In Bio.

Many entrepreneurs (and project managers) have networks of colleagues and mentors who provide excellent advice to aid in this decision. And yet they don’t act as quickly as they should. Why does this happen?

Eric Ries at Entrepreneur cited three reasons. First, vanity metrics can allow you to form false conclusions and live in your own private reality. Second, unclear hypotheses mean you can never experience total failure and therefore there is no impetus for radical change. And third, fear is powerful. “Acknowledging failure can lead to dangerously low morale,” he said.

Denial is obviously a key component of all of these, but how can you break out of it? Ries recommended a regular, pre-scheduled, “pivot or persevere” meeting that allows your team to address the decision in a structured way.

Business Agility Insight #4: Shift Your Perspective Toward Learning

 My grandmother once said: “it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you choose to think about it that matters.” This can easily be applied to avoiding the trap of fear and denial over a project’s change in course.

Leaders who are learning agile do not perseverate over the best pivot scenario. They simply gather all the facts they can, make an educated decision, and don’t look back until it’s time to objectively evaluate their results.

As we discussed here a while back, learning agility is openness to new and potentially conflicting information and the ability to apply any insights derived. People with this trait enjoy diverse experiences and are unruffled by what they deem as expected shifts in direction. They are willing to put themselves out there and take risks in the service of a desired end state.

I’ll remind you that Green Peak Partners and the Teachers College at Columbia University recently assessed the value that learning agile individuals bring to their organizations. Their study found that c-suite leaders who ranked high for learning agility outperformed less-agile peers as measured by revenue growth and “boss ratings” issued by their Boards.

Learning agile leaders do not necessarily pivot more often, but when they do, they are less neurotic and stressed out about it. So, as a leader for whom a significant pivot will eventually be an unavoidable reality, you’d be well-served to practice adopting this mentality.

Business Agility Insight #5: Time and Execute Your Communication Properly

 Changing course can be difficult not only for company leaders but also for the employees who have dedicated themselves to the original vision. “It can be very emotional for the team members involved,” said Raj De Datta, who is currently working on BloomReach, his third startup, and spent four years at Cisco. As he told Mike Cassidy, one thing he learned from Cisco CEO John Chambers was to clearly articulate the big picture, the overriding mission, and then at every opportunity explain how the new direction serves that mission.

Timing and executing your pivot properly can reinforce the veracity of a risky decision. Even if you’re still not sure you are doing the right thing, getting people behind you can make you feel better during this period of uncertainty. So, here are a few other tips for doing just that.

First, although there are times when a pivot itself must be rushed, try not to rush your communication about it. Don’t spring upsetting news on your people when your group is under tremendous stress. Be thoughtful in outlining why the pivot is a good development and carefully compile data that shows how and why everyone (including individual team members) will be better off. This will likely involve the production of supplementary materials like snazzy slide decks, infographics, and revamped, easy-to-digest, project plans.

If you are the decision-maker, make sure that all of your team members, even those who report to other managers, hear about any intended pivot directly from you. You can, however, enlist the help of popular employees who vocally support your direction and can work on your behalf to energize the rest of the team.

As we are fond of saying in the process improvement world, pervasive change takes time. Don’t expect your entire organization to be as nimble as you are. After a few months, enthusiasm may wane and people will try to revert to the original strategy. Putting increased pressure on employees to move faster and more independently is likely to backfire. Instead, be constantly available to shepherd the pivot through its first year. Make sure to sustain your communication efforts and reward those who are adjusting well to the new direction.

Last, while you certainly don’t want to be wishy-washy or the kind of leader who changes strategy all the time, you should remain open to tweaking your pivot. Listen to feedback from team members who are on the ground, in the market, seeing the effects of the change firsthand. As we talked about at the beginning of the piece, be willing to re-adjust and re-evaluate!


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